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On the stirring incoherence of Chrysler’s two-minute Clint Eastwood Super Bowl pep talk

Once again, the big surprise in this year's bumper crop of Super Bowl ads was Chrysler's two-minute encomium to America starring Clint Eastwood as motivator in chief. It was stirring and patriotic and incoherent and weird, like hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" sung in Italian. There's no better example of the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, and just how many of us no longer notice.

Chrysler wasn't selling cars Sunday when it put Eastwood in front of 110 million people. There's only fleeting shots of vehicles in the $10 million' worth of time bought after Madonna's halftime show, none of which would have been enough to lure someone beyond the dealership's doorstep. What Chrysler was selling was its soul -- and the idea that it has one.

Like many activities at Chrysler, its previous owners made several attempts to kill any corporate morale in favor of a financial math only they understood. The owners before them, Germany's Daimler AG, treated Chrysler as the downstairs staff whose duty was to serve the Mercedes in the masters' quarters. By surviving the recession (essentially on a whim by President Barack Obama), Chrysler and corporate parent Fiat have won the opportunity for redefinition, a blank slate for its marketers and the resources to get noticed. The trouble is that turning around a car company takes years, and much of Chrysler's lineup is still a work in progress, but Chrysler needs its new soul now.

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This new soul springs from the phrase "Imported from Detroit," one so successfully imprinted on the American conscious following last year's Super Bowl ad that Obama uses it in speeches now. It's a magical line, bidding that the "Detroit" most Americans see as an impoverished foreign country now makes what the world takes. These ads would not work if we didn't want to believe them, to lift up this long-despairing Detroit of artisans and tradespeople with calloused hands and tough yet open hearts.

This year's spot was dominated by Eastwood's gravely voice, emphasized by his silhouette walking toward the camera in a suit that harkens to his "Dirty Harry" era. "It's halftime in America," he growls. "People are out of work and they're hurting. And they're all wondering what they're going to do to make a comeback. And we're all scared, because this isn't a game." And we as a nation rousted from our buffalo wings and microbrews to say, as one, "Who hires Dirty Harry to run a pep rally?"